A gunpowder military in an information age

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More than 70,000 Russian troops are reportedly massing on the Ukrainian border. Washington is consumed with a possible Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. But how ready and prepared is the United States for these and other contingencies as well as meeting the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Guidance objectives “to deter our adversaries, defend our people, interests, and allies, and defeat threats that emerge”?  

Hopefully the last objective will not be tested in a war. But regarding the first two, the nation should be very worried. China and Russia practice  “whole of war” philosophies that place conflict in a much broader political-military context than we do. The U.S. practice often relies too heavily on military power alone. And problems persist there.  

For many decades, U.S. military power has rested on very expensive, high technology advanced weaponry for deterrence and defense. In essence, this was a “gunpowder” age strategy dependent on offensive and firepower-intensive warfare to attack and defeat an adversary through precision air and missile strikes enabled by command, control and surveillance networks.   

Maintaining this firepower-intensive strategy cost taxpayers about $750 billion this year, several times more than China and Russia collectively spend on their militaries. Those costs will only grow. 

But technology alone does not always win wars. Nor does firepower. Ironically, reliance on high technology created major unintended vulnerabilities, weaknesses and dependencies that enemies since Vietnam have exploited with less costly “asymmetric” responses to blunt and circumvent U.S. firepower dominance. Moscow and Beijing understand that history and have adopted broader asymmetric strategies of disruption. 

China calls this “informationalization” operations. In a seminal 1999 book, “Unrestricted Warfare,” two Chinese air force colonels presciently laid out the rationale for China’s current military strategy and, in many ways, Russia’s. Both are based on “active defense and active measures” to disrupt and neutralize U.S. strategy and tactics. This is war in an information age.   

A 2018 report for the secretary of the Navy on Chinese cyber capabilities (and by extension, Russian) concluded that this presents “an existential threat to maritime forces” — yes, existential. Disrupting and destroying American command, control, communications and surveillance capabilities (C4ISR) through kinetic and non-kinetic means are high priorities. Targeting U.S. forces at distance with cyber and long-range missiles exceeding the reach of American weapons is also part of this information-intensive strategy.  

For less money, China and Russia put U.S. forces and bases in the Pacific and Europe at great risk. For example, a U.S. carrier strike group with F-35’s and escorts costs about $30 billion. Chinese and Russian long-range missiles and cyber weapons cost a fraction of that.

But even if the forthcoming National Security and Defense Strategy reviews propose major changes to the current force structure, these will face intense political and bureaucratic resistance. Many interests in Congress and the defense industrial world would be jeopardized. Yet, this 20th century thinking must change in order to field relevant military power for the information dominant and disruptive 21st century.  

First, new strategic foundations are essential for a world in which a new MAD (not the Cold War nuclear “mutual assured destruction” but “massive attacks of disruption” caused by man or nature along with the information revolution) must take higher national security priority. COVID-19, cyberattacks and climate change are agents of the new MAD, as are Chinese and Russian strategies. “Containing, preventing and defending” against MAD in general and China and Russia in particular must be key policy aims. 

Second, a Porcupine Defense is designed for a MAD-centric world. This defense targets Chinese and Russian strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities with greater reliance on non-kinetic means that balance the preference for expensive firepower-based solutions with less pricey systems to deny an enemy the initiative. Porcupine Defense would make an initial attack so costly that it is rendered infeasible, thereby adding to deterrence. This defense is also affordable at $600-650 billion a year.

This defense employs thousands of relatively inexpensive armed unmanned drones rather than fifth generation aircraft that will confound any assault striking crucial enemy pressure points and vulnerabilities. Massively explosive land mines deployed across invasion routes will disrupt an invasion. Long-range missiles, sea mines and low-cost C4ISR space systems are part of this defense. And misinformation, disinformation and deception systems will create chaos for an attacker.

Finally, China and Russia exercise highly controlled command, meaning most military units have virtually no independent authority. Hence, disrupting C4ISR must be a high priority.

Reason dictates leaving “gunpowder” thinking behind. But reason, like firepower solutions alone, may not be sufficiently powerful to work. 

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags China Cyberattack Cyberwarfare Military Military strategy Military tactics Mutual assured destruction Nuclear strategy Nuclear warfare Russia

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